Why Conservatives can't turn their backs on their western base

The Conservatives need to win over voters in central and Eastern Canada to win the next election — but that doesn't mean they can afford to ignore their base in the West.

The Conservative Party is only major party that raises most of its money west of Ontario

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole needs to take new seats for his party in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada if he wants to win the next election. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

To win the next election, the Conservatives need to bust out of their Western Canadian base and win seats in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

The party already wins in Alberta and Saskatchewan by gargantuan margins, so it follows that sacrificing some of that surplus for the more decisive votes in central and Eastern Canada would be a worthwhile trade.

But could the Conservatives afford such a swap?

The issues that matter to Western Canada are particularly important to the Conservatives. Since the beginning of the year, COVID-19 has been the only issue raised more often in the House of Commons by Erin O'Toole than pipelines. In the first question period of 2021, the Conservative leader prioritized a question about the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline over delays in vaccine deliveries.

While speaking to the media last week, O'Toole was asked about an Alberta MLA's proposal to hold a referendum on Alberta independence and what role the Conservative leader had in easing political alienation in Western Canada. Instead of addressing the issue of Alberta separation directly, O'Toole chalked the problem up to a lack of faith in the Trudeau government and said his party would propose a parliamentary committee on Canada-U.S. relations.

Conservative MPs from Alberta and Saskatchewan make up nearly two-fifths of the Conservative caucus, so it's only natural that the party represents those constituents and their concerns.

But this does cause some problems for a party trying to broaden its base into areas of the country where pipelines are not a top-of-mind concern — or even something that a significant number of voters support.

An article written by Conservative strategist Anthony Koch for the newsletter The Line spelled out the challenge for the party.

"A general consensus seems to have emerged around the idea," Koch wrote, "that in recent years the Conservative Party has become increasingly hyper-focused on 'the base' to the detriment of their ability to appeal to the swing voters who decide elections in this country."

The Conservative vote is not very efficient. Despite winning the popular vote in the 2019 federal election, the Conservatives finished well back of the Liberals in seats. That's because of their vast support in parts of Western Canada: the 34 ridings won by the biggest margins in the last election were all Conservative wins in Alberta, Saskatchewan, rural Manitoba and the B.C. Interior.

But while those massive wins didn't give the party extra seats, the Conservatives still have lots of reasons to keep those voters happy.

It isn't possible to track where every donor lives; Elections Canada only publishes the names and locations of contributors who give at least $200. But those donations do give us an indication of where the parties' money is coming from. For the Conservatives, most of it comes from the West.

Conservative fundraising disproportionately western

In 2020, the Conservatives raised about $10.5 million from donors who gave at least $200 in a quarter — 51 per cent of all the money the party raised last year.

Breaking down the source of Conservative donations by province shows that Ontario donors contributed the single biggest portion — but at 39 per cent of the total, that share is only a little larger than the province's share of both the Canadian population and the Conservative caucus.

Second on the list was Alberta, which provided 25 per cent of all the dollars contributed to the party by donors giving at least $200. That percentage is more than double the province's share of the Canadian population, though it is about even with Alberta's weight within the Conservative caucus.

The three other western provinces followed Alberta in terms of total funds donated, with British Columbia providing 19 per cent of Conservative fundraising and Saskatchewan and Manitoba combining for 10.5 per cent.

Alberta and Saskatchewan alone — where the Conservatives hold 47 of 48 seats — represented 31 per cent of Conservative fundraising.

By comparison, Quebec and Atlantic Canada (where the Conservatives hold 14 of 110 seats) represented a tiny amount. Just three per cent of dollars raised by the Conservatives came from Quebec. Another three per cent came from Atlantic Canada.

The Conservatives actually raised more of their $200+ donations west of the Manitoba-Ontario border than east of it.

While their electoral fortunes will be decided east of that border, the Conservatives — who spent $28.9 million in the 2019 election — need the money that comes from west of it in order to compete.

Fundraising for other parties not as lopsided

While there are some regional variations, the other parties don't share the Conservatives' lopsided fundraising profile.

The Liberals, who raised 63 per cent of their donations from contributors giving at least $200, received 56 per cent of that money from donors in Ontario. That is more than the province's share of the population. About half of the Liberal caucus hails from Ontario.

In 2020, the Liberals under Justin Trudeau raised just over half of the money they collected through contributions worth at least $200 from donors in Ontario. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

B.C. was second at 13 per cent, followed by Quebec at nine per cent and Alberta — where the Liberals have no seats — at eight per cent. In total, about 27.5 per cent of Liberal fundraising came from Western Canada, with 72 per cent coming from Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. That is roughly in line with each region's representation in the House of Commons.

The NDP raised 43 per cent of its money from donors giving at least $200. The top NDP donor provinces were Ontario (45.5 per cent) and B.C. (26 per cent), the two provinces that make up most of the NDP's caucus.

Compared with each province's share of the population, B.C. was significantly over-represented among NDP donors, while Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were under-represented. In total, 54 per cent of NDP donors giving at least $200 lived east of Manitoba.

The Greens had the lowest percentage of funds raised from donors giving at least $200 — 36 per cent. Ontario and B.C. are over-represented among Green donors, while Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador are under-represented. In all, 62 per cent of Green donors were from central and Eastern Canada.

Conservatives looking in rear-view mirror?

It's clear that the Conservatives don't have much competition when it comes to fundraising in Western Canada. They also don't have much competition for seats. Only two ridings in Alberta and Saskatchewan were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points in the 2019 federal election.

But a stronger political focus on the issues that matter to voters in the Greater Toronto Area and other key regions of the country could have a consequential impact on the support the Conservatives receive in their strongholds — both in terms of fundraising and votes.

The party does not face a serious threat to its right at the moment. But it does face a potential threat in the rise of parties driven by western alienation.

The Buffalo Party, which wants more autonomy for Saskatchewan and supports a referendum on independence, captured 2.6 per cent of the vote in last year's provincial election and nine per cent in ridings where they fielded candidates.

In Alberta, a poll conducted by Mainstreet Research last month found support for the separatist Wildrose Independence Party standing at 10 per cent. Federally, a poll by the Angus Reid Institute found about nine per cent of Albertans saying they'd vote for Wexit Canada, now re-branded as the Maverick Party.

In 1988, Preston Manning's Reform Party was small enough for the Progressive Conservatives to ignore. By 1993, Reform had replaced the PCs as the top choice of Western Canadians. (Ron Poling / Canadian Press)

And of course, Maxime Bernier's People's Party is still active, though it is only polling at about two per cent nationwide.

But once upon a time, a fringe outfit called the Reform Party was also polling at about two per cent. That was before it contributed to the implosion of the old Progressive Conservative Party — when the PCs were seen to be no longer standing up for the West.

More than most, the Conservatives know what can happen when a party stops listening to its base.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now